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We All Watch In Our Own Way: A Critic Tracks The 'TV Revolution'

Emily Nussbaum received the most hate mail of her career after she panned season 1 of HBO's <em>True Detective. </em>"Most of it was handwritten," she says.
C. Clive Thompson
Penguin Random House
Emily Nussbaum received the most hate mail of her career after she panned season 1 of HBO's True Detective. "Most of it was handwritten," she says.

When TV critic Emily Nussbaum was growing up in the '70s, she says television wasn't something to be analyzed, criticized and picked apart.

"Even people who loved to watch TV would put it down," she recalls. "It was considered, at best, a kind of delicious-but-bad-for-you treat, and, at worst, more like chain-smoking, like something you did by yourself that messed up your brain."

It wasn't until Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranosthat she felt a shift. Nussbaum, who had been working toward her doctorate in literature, began to see TV as its own art form.

Now, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic for The New Yorker, Nussbaum is known for reviews exploring the ways gender, race and sexuality figure into television shows — and our perceptions of them. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, she's been grappling with whether or not a viewer can separate the art from the actions of its creator.

"I don't have a solution to it," she says, "but ... I don't think that the idea is that people should only make clean, illuminating, aspirational art. The whole point of a good artist is to be able to wrestle with messy things, stuff that's confusing."

Nussbaum's new book is I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the Television Revolution.

Interview Highlights

On the idea that reading is "better" than watching TV

There are shows that I've watched that have had a cataclysmic emotional and intellectual effect on me. That's exactly what art should do. And there's stuff that's sophisticated, and there's stuff that's just funny and soothing — and all the things that you go to in art. And there are books that I've read that were bad. It's like any art form has good versions of itself and bad versions of itself.

I've actually refused to appear on any panels that are titled ... "Is TV the new novel?" or "Is TV the new movies?" This was a very consistent thing when I started my career. Every panel was framed around a kind of rock-'em-sock-'em robot match-up of either of these forms. As far as I'm concerned, they're in competition economically, artistically.

You can love novels and love TV shows and not feel like they have to be placed in some sort of hierarchy.

Let a hundred flowers bloom. Everything is valuable in its own way and they don't need to be in tension with one another. You can love novels and love TV shows and not feel like they have to be placed in some sort of hierarchy.

On how she approaches art made by men who were implicated in the #MeToo movement

I think that there's actually a strong economic argument for getting rid of people's art. I don't happen to feel like that's my job. My job is actually to respond to the art itself and find a way to do that. But I definitely understand the idea that, for instance, you don't want to fill Bill Cosby's coffers — that makes total sense to me.

There's also, frankly, another argument that's sort of the radical argument that says: These guys ran the industry. They pushed a lot of women out. A lot of this is not just about sexual predation, it's just about the way misogyny and all sorts of exploitation kept certain voices out. And so there's another argument that basically isn't even about canceling or deleting — it's about put your attention elsewhere.

I believe in all of these things a little bit, but I also feel like my job is to engage not just to reject, and sometimes there is art about which you can say new things once you know more. ... I'm not telling anybody else what their approach should be.

On wrestling with her love of the 1968 film Rosemary's Baby, whose director, Roman Polanski, fled the U.S. in 1978 after pleading guilty to statutory rape

Rosemary's Baby is a very relevant movie. Rosemary's Baby is a brilliant, dark comedy and horror film about gaslighting and about rape culture. I mean, that's true despite Roman Polanski's behavior. ... It's a feminist masterpiece created by a sex criminal. You don't have to solve that contradiction to engage with it, and that's what I think people kind of have to do. That's the one part of it that is somewhat prescriptive at least for me, is I'm like, I have to find a way to wrestle with this art that doesn't involve just shutting off my knowledge of the person who created it.

On her initial reviews of Louis C.K.'s FX series Louie, before the allegations of C.K.'s sexual misconduct surfaced

My first reviewof his show [Louie] was a mixed review that basically suggested that although the show was formally great and experimental there was something wrong with the main character because it was this slightly manipulative sad sack. And I think I called him like a "resentful Charlie Brown," and I had some problems with that, and I compared it to a different show that I loved, Huge, that was out at the same time. And it was about a certain kind of angry, fat character that experienced a lot of resentment and discomfort in the world, and I basically suggested the show was a little manipulative, but I changed my mind. I actually wrote a profile of [C.K.] at one point, and I also wrote a rave review of the third season of the show, where I still have very strong feelings about how great some of those episodes are. ...

I felt that the show altered TV, because he was doing it by himself, which was not the way that comedies are generally made. He was using independent film models. He was doing a certain kind of mixture of comedy and drama that was new, and a certain kind of confessional stuff that was new. And this is still true.

That show was extremely influential, and one of the interesting things to me is that a lot of the women who have later criticized Louis and a lot of the men involved in the #MeToo movement made shows that use the tools that Louis created in order to put the lens on something very different. So I'm talking about like Lena Dunham and Girls. I'm talking about Tig Notaro and One Mississippi. There were a variety of female creators who basically use this sort of quasi-confessional model that he helped to spearhead, but that doesn't mean he owns it. It just means it ended up, ironically, being a useful tool to condemn him, which I find kind of a powerful thing about art in general.

On being a feminist critic and disliking The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which many viewers consider a feminist show

Well, the most feminist thing is to actually be honest about your responses to art, and the blessing of modern television, especially in the last five years or so, has been the explosion of shows by female creators, about female-centered topics in genres that are sometimes coded as female — soap operas and sitcoms and all sorts of much more colorful female ensemble shows. And the real blessing for a critic is if there are enough of those shows, you actually can criticize a show without knocking down the one representation on TV. And this goes for every marginalized group. Like, when you have multiple shows by black creators, none of those shows has to be "the black show."

Mrs. Maisel had very good timing and, believe me, I understand why people love the show. It came out after Trump was elected and I think people were seeking it out as a kind of holodeck affirmative counter-programming to an apocalyptic reality. It had a kind of candied, delightful quality. What can I say? It did not work for me. It's not my taste.

On the evolution of sexual violence shown on TV

There was a little bit of an arms race, I feel, as far as increasingly graphic portraits of sexual violence, and there's been a lot of feminist criticism of this. You know, "This is lurid, and it's tacky, and it's pornographic, and it's exploitative," and that's absolutely true of some shows.

But I've always made the argument that it was, in the aggregate, a good thing ... because it was a side effect of making female stories central to television. And sexual violence happens to men, too, but when you start taking women's lives seriously, sexual violence and all sorts of different things, sexual harassment and many, many subjects that were not dealt with on TV are going to be part of those stories. ... There's a range of shows that were about women that had backstories that involved the women having been raped or having those experiences. Sometimes they were cheaply done, sometimes they were well done. ... I don't think you can make a blanket rule that says rape on television is harmful.

On how her perception of the "bad fan" has changed over time

Basically, the definition of the "bad fan" is the kind of person who watched The Sopranos ... solely for the whackings and was completely uninterested in anything about domesticity or morality. And this was a growing frustration for me as a critic ... and so I was basically saying, "You're watching the show wrong."

But I have to say, my ideas on this have changed over time somewhat. And I wrote an essaythat was about Archie Bunker as the first creator of the bad fan. It's about All in the Family, the show during the '70s, and the fact that he was a character who was in a lot of ways set up to trigger an audience to be split in half, so that half of the audience was seeing the show as making fun of Archie Bunker, and half of the audience was cheering on Archie Bunker.

I think this is actually baked into TV a little bit, and it was an irritation to me, but it's something that I've come to find to be a very fascinating part of television, which is a mass-medium and has multiple types of viewers. And the way to make a show a success is to have multiple groups of people watch it in different ways.

Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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